42 - Chris

Two Weeks Later

Okay, Chris. Just ask her.

My palms are sweating as my hand clasps around my cellphone heavily weighting down my pocket. Sam had texted me half an hour ago making sure I didn't chicken out this time. I just couldn't help it; I kept envisaging Ashley's face contorting in disgust, her words declaring, "Hell no." And I don't think I can take breaking what we already have – in case she's not ready. Yet Sam had insisted that Ash would never say that. Apparently, it's clear that we're practically married already - we just need a ceremony and a pair of rings to make it official. Her words.

My cell phone buzzes in my hand, startling me, my shoulder jerking. Ashley glances back at me in bewilderment, her eyes asking 'Are you okay?' We're still treading on thin film here, only just feeling like we're allowed to actually enjoy ourselves. We're still cautious.

I smile stiffly, nodding. I know Ashley can sense something. She always can – I can never get away with anything under her nose. That will definitely be a trait of our marriage.

No. Chris, she hasn't even said yes yet. You haven't even asked her yet!

As soon as Ashley turns her back again, refocusing her eyes on shopping mall stores surrounding us – it was the best cover I could come up with. "Let's go on a shopping trip!" Yeah, I would have stared at me funny too – I swivel on my heal, pull my cell phone out of my pocket in a swift of panic and flick the text open; 'Has she said yes yet?'

Sam. Again.

I quickly thumb out, 'Give me time', clicking send before pressing the power button, cutting the screen to black. If I didn't, I'm sure I'll be barraged by Sam declaring that 'You're gonna keep saying that until your 90.'

But I'd had to wait. Ashley wouldn't have been ready to be asked this kind of question back then. I wouldn't have been stable enough to ask her. There had been too much going on. For one, there had still been a lot of backlash from the court jurisdiction last week. And let alone the situation with Dr. Hill.

That had pretty much taken up all our time. Even if the site with the photographs has been taken down, we can't Dr. Hill get away with what he's done. We'd desperately wanted to find a way to stop him from what he was doing to us – and we'd successfully found a way to sue him for stalking. But that had meant nothing when we had no money to even hire a lawyer. Somehow, Jessica was graced with angel wings and offered to pitch it - she'd just said she had a lot of useless money lying around - and that she owed us. Yeah, I was surprised too.

If we win the case, we'll be financially secure enough to pay off all our student bills and even get on to redecorating our apartment. And pay for a wedding.

That is, if Ashley says yes.

"Chris," she tugs at my wrist. I glance to her. She's got that enthusiastic glint in her eye and I know exactly what's coming. "Let's go in here." Her eyes lift up to her favourite bookstore. Excited anxiety tickles at my stomach, my hand gripping onto the handle of my satchel around my shoulder. This is what I'd planned to happen – I knew that she'd want to come here. It's pretty much her favourite place and I want my proposal to be one of her favourite moments. I want her to see this store and automatically remember the moment where she said yes to the best decision of her list.

But now it's here. Am I ready? Can I really get the words out? Are they really fully formed.

My clammy palms flex nervously, one of my hands gripping the strap of my satchel around my shoulder. I swallow. This is more than a bookstore. This is our future.

'Just do it, Chris,' I hear Sam's insistent voice in my head. She's even in my brain now. She gets everywhere. I secretly roll my eyes as if she's really here to see me before I capture just enough resolve and return my attention to Ashley. "Sure," I nod, smile, and follow her in.

"What about this one?" I swallow, trying to stop my hand from shaking as I pull out the hard backed book from my satchel and push it in Ashley's direction. We've been in the bookstore for about twenty minutes, browsing the shelves for interesting reading material. Ashley went straight to the fiction section. Her eyes had wandered over the Mystery/Thriller section where she used to scour for hours before the incident – the stories now all too real for her – before she directed her footsteps towards the romance section. An appropriate choice.

I've been keeping close to her, trying to steal enough courage to ask her. To say something. But every time, I'd moved my hands to open my satchel, my fingers had been shaking too much. My stomach had been trembling too much. My throat had been too tight.

Until now.

Ashley glances down at the book in surprise, cautiously taking it into her hands. I'd purposefully gone to a second hand bookstore and selected the most antique one I could find. One that I new Ashley would love. I knew she'd like the turquoise hew that glistened in the light on the dark, bronze-like cover. It had to be special. I want her to know that I wanted to make it special for her.

Ashley looks up at me with a weird look on her face. She's suspicious of me. "What?" I stick my hands in my jean pockets to stop them from shaking. My grin is more of a cringe. "Open it," I suggest with a shrug.

With her expression set in scepticism, Ashley carefully opens the cover. Her movements are in slow motion. My sweat at the back of my neck feels all too hot. My breaths feel all too heavy. I watch her hands move, inch by inch, revealing the contents of the book. I'm convinced she can hear my heart pounding in my chest, threatening to explode.

And there it is. A cut out hole in the centre of the book, with a glistening ring placed inside of it.

I can't feel anything. My eyes are locked on her, my fingers drumming against my pockets, fidgeting, impatient and anxious and frightened. Her eyes are fixed on the metallic ring, and I'm watching them change from shock to weeping to something else entirely undistinguishable. Something I'm scared will be a 'No'. And then her hands, in reflex, drop the book, hearing it clutter to the floor with a thump.

"Hey," I pull a smile on my face, trying to disguise my fear with humour. Though I don't think it's working. "That ring cost a lot money! I had to save up for age-"

Her lips smash against mine. I blink back, surprised, her arms flinging around my neck. And then, as if my body had always expected it – why it didn't tell my mind, I don't know – I'm slipping my hands down to her waist, closing my eyes and kissing her back.

Her lips are warm. A promise. An answer.

"I suppose," I murmur as we break the kiss, our noses inches from each other, smiles equally as mischievous. "That's a yes then?"

Ashley bites her bottom lip in a wide smile before nodding.

A huge sigh of relief escapes my lips before I'm clasping my arms fully around her waste, bringing her into another kiss and swinging her around victoriously in my arms. I can't help but laugh. Even with the weight of Ashley in my arms, it is a hell of a lot lighter than the fear and anxiety I'd had only moments ago.

And then her feet connect with a shelf of books that proceeds to come hurtling to the ground.

"Oops," I grin sheepishly, glancing down at the mess before placing Ashley back on her feet.

Ashley's eyes glint with happiness and humour as they catch mine. "Maybe," she suggests with a smirk that I've missed. It's like she can't even stop smiling, "We should go?" She tugs at my arm and I glance back and forth at the shop assistants, just in case I get an angry glare in my direction. Then, with chuckles and giggles galore, we rush out the exit.

"Oh wait!" I dig my heels into the floor, stopping the both of us in our tracks. "The ring!"

With speedy reflexes, I drop her hand, promising her with a comical grin that I'd be right back, before hurrying back into the shop.

I swiftly scoop up the antique book, already containing the ring and shine a sheepish smile in the direction of the shop assistant coming to clean up my mess. "Nice weather," I cock a salute in her direction, before swivelling on my heels and rushing out like I was running from a wendigo.

And there she is. Ashley.

My future wife.

The sunlight through the shopping mall window glistens in her hair, like the sun itself painted it. Her cheeks are rosy and rich, highlighting the huge smile on her face. She's laughing at me. And I really hope that she'll keep doing that. As long as she's happy.

"I got it," I huff out a breath, grinning back at her.

And then, right there, we settle. We just look at each other, our eyes searching the other's like we always have. We don't need words. Not audible ones.

Slowly, carefully, I glance back down at the book, open it and pluck the ring out. Then I'm carelessly dropping the book and I'm reaching for Ashley's left hand. "Ashley?" I ask slowly, my breath hitching with smiles instead of nerves. She looks so hopeful and excited up at me. Like she's about to burst. "Will you marry me?"

"Yes!" She cheers.

With a huge grin that is probably going to break my face, I slide the ring along her delicate ring finger. "It fits," I mutter, excitement bubbling in my stomach. Ashley's eyes glint and I think she's crying. "How did I manage that?" And then I'm scooping her back up in my arms again, feeling her heartbeat close to mine.

This time we're going to do it right. This time we're going to have a happy ending.

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